April 29, 2008

The Inevitable Alliance

Michael Feldman

It’s funny how events are always seen as inevitable after they happen. That’s the feeling I got from Monday’s announcement of the new Cray-Intel alliance. The two companies have joined forces to research and develop multi-petaflop HPC technology for the next decade. It makes sense the iconic x86 chipmaker should hook up with the iconic supercomputer maker, especially considering that manycore computing and the ensuing programming challenges are forcing both of them down the same bumpy path.

We have a couple of articles this week that dissect this new collaboration — an analysis from Addison Snell at Tabor Research; and a report from me. Both of us attempt to read the tea leaves in an announcement that is big on vision, but short on specifics. Our two-man consensus here is that the partnership looks like a winner for both companies.

And the losers? AMD, for sure, whose pride takes a big hit for losing its last exclusive HPC arrangement. Cray’s move signals the definitive end of the Opteron’s dominance of commodity-based supercomputing, which was foreshadowed in 2007 by Sun Microsystems’ new partnership with Intel. For the time being, Cray has no plans to drop its Opteron-based XT5 line. And since the first Intel-based Cray systems aren’t even expected to be rolled out for another three years, AMD needn’t be concerned about any short-term revenue losses.

The other HPC vendor that must be looking at the new Cray-Intel alliance with some apprehension is IBM. The addition of Intel multicore hardware and software research muscle gives Cray a much more comfortable position for challenging IBM in supercomputing leadership in the next decade. Although IBM and Cray are both looking at hardware accelerators like Cell processors, FPGAs, and vector chips to get to 10 petaflops, general-purpose microprocessors will still be the heart of any supercomputer in the near future. Here, Big Blue is able to leverage its own in-house chips (PowerPC ASICs and the upcoming Power7 microprocessor) for its machines. And because IBM is an IT behemoth, the company is able to draw on its considerable resources to dominate smaller competitors. By partnering with Intel, Cray should be able to level the playing field somewhat. In three or four years, we’ll know how much.